Archive for 2009

A Phoebe in the Fog

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

The last day of 2009 was dark and cloudy, cold, damp and drizzly, with off and on rain. Late in the afternoon a dense fog had gathered as I went out for a walk in the last light (such as it was) of the year. Sunset was supposed to be around 5:40, I think, but there was no hint of color to be seen, in the sky or all around – all was gray, cold, murky fog, with the black shapes of bare trees, evergreens and shrubs.

Earlier in the day birds had been fairly active in the yard, but by this late, there were few to be seen or heard – not even a single Red-bellied Woodpecker or Tufted Titmouse or Crow. Mourning Doves perched silently in bare-limbed trees. A Chickadee chattered here and there, a Carolina Wren fussed, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! One quiet Eastern Bluebird sat in the top of a bare pecan. The tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows and chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets came from beneath a few bushes. Yellow-rumped Warblers called sharp cheks as they flew from tree to tree. A good many Robins were scattered here and there, mostly in the trees, calling and even one or two singing pieces of songs. Eastern Towhees called from the thickets of the old field.

But mostly as I walked I noticed the tsup calls of several Eastern Phoebes coming through the fog from different spots along the way. I only saw one, as it flew into a small tree and sat on a bare branch pumping its tail up and down, but the short tsup call has become very familiar. It’s a quick, quiet call, but more complex, with more character and shading than a chip or a peep or a chek or a tseep. It’s been a good year for Phoebes here, and the past several weeks they have been among the most active and vocal of birds around the neighborhood, maybe because our resident birds have been joined by migrants from further north coming in for the winter.

A small gray flycatcher with a dark, soot-gray head, no facial markings, a faint yellow or gray-white breast, and a consistent habit of wagging its tail up and down quickly as it perches, an Eastern Phoebe is a year-round resident here, apparently finding enough insects even through the winter to live on, supplemented with spiders, other invertebrates and fruits, especially in very cold weather. Phoebes always have been among my favorite birds to have around – last spring a pair built a nest in the curve of a gutter high over our garage and successfully raised three big, strong-looking young.

So as the year comes to an end, it seems fitting enough that a Phoebe, calling somewhere out of sight in the fog, marks its last fading light.

December Birds

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Birds have seemed rather quiet in the neighborhood, with not as many different species and fewer numbers this December than in recent years. As always, I’m not sure this is an accurate observation because it could be that I’ve just been too busy or preoccupied – but even though other obligations have kept me from posting blogs through most of the month, I have been outside at some point for an hour or more most days, and keeping a journal.

On a good walk through the neighborhood in late December, most days I could count on finding around 20-25 species, and the total number of species for the month – not all seen on one day – has been 36. Highlights have included a Sharp-shinned Hawk that flew low overhead one cold cloudy day, its neat, compact shape perfectly held right above me; a Cooper’s Hawk seen two or three times in a certain stretch along Summit Drive, perched in low branches and sailing low over the grass; the mews of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and their visits to the pecan trees in our front yard; the little-bell-like calls of Dark-eyed Juncos foraging below shrubs and below the feeders; the quick scattering of Chipping Sparrows flying up from brown grass along the roadsides; the chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in bushes and low branches; the occasional high ti-ti-ti of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the higher branches of pines and hardwoods; the cuck-cuck-cuck calls of a Pileated Woodpecker in a particular section of woods; one sighting of a quiet Hermit Thrush in early December; many Black Vultures soaring, usually three or four together; a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring together and calling on a blue-sky, sunny cold day; the squeaking calls and bold behavior of Brown-headed Nuthatches that visit the feeders daily; the high, thin calls of small flocks of Cedar Waxwings; and the to-WHEE calls and activity of Eastern Towhees, bright splotches of black, red, brown and white scratching in dry brown leaves below bushes.

Conspicuously missing from my list are Red-shouldered Hawk and Pine Warbler – both of which I’m sure are around, but I have not seen or heard them since late fall – and Barred Owl, heard seldom lately. I’ve not yet seen a Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch or White-breasted Nuthatch this winter, and no Brown Creeper or Winter Wren in several years now – but keep watching.

Maybe the most significant missing birds are the fairly good-size flocks of Blackbirds we usually see here in winter. So far this season I’ve only seen one lone Red-winged Blackbird, a very few Common Grackles and no certain Rusty Blackbirds, though there have been a few flying over that I wasn’t sure about. I’m still watching and hoping for the flocks to come along.

*Complete list of species seen or heard in Summit Grove, December 2009: Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, American Goldfinch.

Hermit Thrush

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Near noon on a cold, damp, cloudy day, a Hermit Thrush perched high among the bare top branches of a pecan tree. A small, dark, quiet shape against a dismal gray sky, it flicked its wings, flipped up its tail and lowered it slowly, over and over, each time calling a soft, soft chup.

I didn’t expect to see a Hermit Thrush so high and almost walked by without taking a second look at the bird on the branch. More often they’re under the bushes and shrubs or along the edges of the woods. In the blurry gray light, its coloring and markings were barely visible – darkly spotted upper breast, brownish back and wings and faded cinnamon tail, and I could only imagine the white eye-ring that gives it a wide-eyed and trusting look. But the shape, with head held high, and the tail and the call were distinct, and it stayed on the branch long enough for me to get a closer and closer look.

Its presence there – a little anonymous spot in a muffled expanse of grayness was a reminder – again – of how much I often miss. What I see and hear depends so much on how open my own mind is to the world around me, not locked inside myself. On this day, though persistent thoughts kept drawing me back in, I cleared them away now and then – and was lucky enough to see the Hermit Thrush and hear its gentle call.

While here in the South for the winter months, Hermit Thrushes are not as shy as their name implies, and it’s usually not hard to find one, taking no more than the trouble to stop and listen for the chup or watch in likely places. They’re fun to watch and seem to have regular habits, each day following a similar pattern of foraging around an area. Usually we have one in the bushes around our house, though I haven’t heard or seen one here so far this season, maybe discouraged by the neighborhood cats that too often hang around. A little bit like a Robin, a Hermit Thrush hops or scurries from favorite spot to spot, making its rounds – from shrub to stepping stone to potted plant to deck rail to the branch of a bush – stopping and looking around, and scurrying again, searching for insects and fruit.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Continue Their Work

Friday, November 20th, 2009

A female and a male Red-bellied Woodpecker are continuing to excavate what I assume is a roost hole in a tall dead pine. Both yesterday and today, one of the two were at work in the same spot each time I went outside to look for them. They work so quietly that if I didn’t know where to look I wouldn’t know they were there – unusual for a bird I usually think of as very vocal and certainly not shy or secretive. Yesterday I again saw the female leave when the male arrived, giving a low, brief rattle in flight as he approached, and he immediately began to work just as she had.

Though I can’t see it, the hole must be getting larger and deeper. When the woodpeckers lean over to work on it now, they almost disappear from my view, leaving only the end of a bobbing tail visible on the pine trunk from my location on our back deck. But they still come back repeatedly to a vertical position on the trunk in full profile, and I’ve watched through the scope again as they lean in, come up with a big bill-full of wood fiber and toss it away, doing this several times in a row, then pausing, and leaning over several times just to dig or peck.

Gray Catbird and Song Sparrow

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

The surprise of the day was finding a Gray Catbird feeding on clusters of dark purple fruit in a privet thicket among all the withered, tangled brown weeds in the old field. The Catbird was quiet and stayed mostly screened in the brush, but came out in the open long enough to see very well – a slender, all-gray bird with a thin black cap, one of my favorites. Usually we don’t see them often at this time of year. Most migrate a little further south for the winter or to the neotropics.

I only saw it because many White-throated Sparrows, several Eastern Towhees and Northern Mockingbirds, a Brown Thrasher, a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, Cardinals, Carolina Wrens and at least three Ruby-crowned Kinglets were all very lively in the weedy grasses and thickets of the field, especially in the privet. So I stopped to watch for several minutes. There also are persimmon trees with fruit in the field. The kudzu vines are all shriveled and dead, the grasses are brown and gray, with lots of dusty, drab gray-brown clumps of goldenrod gone to seed.

Among the other birds were Song Sparrows – brown-streaked backs and wings with darker streaks on a pale breast that come together into a central dark spot in the middle of the breast – the first ones I’ve seen this season. Two came out onto open branches, tails twitching and swishing fast, heads held high and erect, nervously looking around but lingering, as if to soak up some sunlight.

It was almost noon, usually a very quiet time for birds, but the day had begun with dense fog and heavy clouds. The sky had begun to clear about 11:00, and as the clouds dissipated and the sun came out, birds became more active, so it was a good time to be out.

A Red-tailed Hawk flew low, pursued by several cawing Crows. Six Black Vultures and two Turkey Vultures soared very high. The high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings passed over as small, tight flocks flew. And almost all the other usual suspects seemed to be out, warmed to action by the sun – or maybe it was only that the sun warmed me to action and made me more aware and open to seeing and hearing. Either way, it was a particularly nice walk at a beautiful time of day.

Our Winter Cooper’s Hawk

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

The bold gray swoop of a Cooper’s Hawk always takes me by surprise. Although they’re here year-round, dramatic, impressive raptors that perch and hunt low, they’re secretive and quiet, especially during the warmer, sunnier months. So I always feel lucky to see one now and then.

The past few years though, there’s a certain area in our neighborhood where I often see a Cooper’s Hawk during the late fall and winter. Along this stretch of road, there are large grassy yards with widely-spaced oaks and pecans, lots of shrubs, the woods and creek not far away, and in one yard a big solitary magnolia tree where several times I’ve seen a hawk disappear into its dark, dense foliage at twilight.

So today, I was happy when a Cooper’s Hawk suddenly flew low and close across the road in front of me as I walked past this same area. It was late in the day, cloudy, with muted, fading fall foliage and spots of still-vibrant color – maples glowing a soft rose-red, crape myrtles flaming orange, and the white oak leaves deepening almost to mahogany now.

As I left our yard a few minutes earlier, a Mockingbird was doing its best to chase away smaller birds from the feeders, with limited success. Chickadees, Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and two House Finches pretty much ignored it or flew to the one where it was not. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked in the treetops and Golden-crowned Kinglets called high ti-ti-ti. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in low branches nearby. A Carolina Wren sang from the woods, and another flew up out of some bushes as I walked past and fussed at me furiously from a safe spot deep inside a wax myrtle.

Still, the prevailing mood was quiet as I walked down the street, with most bird sounds in the distance – Blue Jays, Crows – only muffled traffic, and no leaf blowers, wood chippers, or weed eaters for a change. The light was soft and gray. Yellow-rumped Warblers called chek as they flew from spot to spot. Red-bellied Woodpeckers chuck-chuck-chucked. Five Eastern Bluebirds perched in the bare top branches of some pecan trees, with one American Robin. A small flock of Grackles passed over.

As I came to the bottom of a hill, the Cooper’s Hawk swept low across the road from one yard into another, startling up four or five Mourning Doves that flew away in a whistling flurry of wings, and perched on a limb in the shadows, but in full view and facing toward me – a sleek, smooth gray, with russet-barred breast and long tail with dark and light bands and a rounded band of white on the tip. Rarely have I had such a close and clear view of a Cooper’s Hawk, though it didn’t last long. It flew to another branch and then to another, still in the same yard, among the same stand of trees, but out of my sight.

It’s nice to know that it’s here – again or still – a familiar winter presence.

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a Roost Hole – A Pair? Or Not?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Early this afternoon – a warm, sunny day with a flannel blue sky, not a cloud in sight, and light breezes sending down showers of brown leaves from the oaks – I watched a female Red-bellied Woodpecker working on a hole high up in a tall dead pine tree just inside the woods behind our house.

She worked for at least an hour, her claws clinging to a large loose slab of bark so that she perched on the trunk in profile to me, and through a scope I had a clear view, framed all around in the copper-brown leaves of white oaks. After about an hour I heard a low, rattled call from nearby. The female woodpecker moved quickly out of the way, around the trunk, and a male flew in to the exact same spot, clinging to the same piece of loose bark, and immediately started working in the same way. The female disappeared quietly.

It looked to me as if the two were a pair, working together on this hole and making a smooth change in the work shift, so one rests while the other works. But – when I looked this up, the information I found indicates that Red-bellied Woodpeckers are generally solitary through the fall and winter and only form pair bonds in nesting season.* So I’m not sure if these two are working together – or if they are competing for this spot. They certainly looked as if they were cooperating peacefully, no indication of aggression or objection or fussing. But I don’t know. I first saw one of the woodpeckers working on the hole yesterday, so they’ve been working on it for at least two days now. Maybe they sometimes share work on a hole even if they’re not a mated pair.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker is sturdy, medium-size, and one of the most common woodpeckers in most areas in the eastern U.S. With its shimmering red nape and crown, smooth gray face, round head, long dark bill, tawny gray breast and black wings barred with white, it’s a handsome, vocal and very active bird. The soft reddish blush on the lowest part of its belly is not at all obvious, so its name can be confusing.

The female – whose red covers the back of the neck but not the crown – clung to the loose slab of bark on the side of the trunk and leaned around the trunk, using her tail as a brace, to work on the hole, which is on the opposite side of the tree, facing south, where I can’t see it. What I could see was that her whole body worked as she knocked or dug at the hole for several seconds, then came back to an upright position, usually with a bill-full of pale wood fiber, which she tossed away with a flick of her head. After a pause of a few seconds to look around, she leaned over to work on the hole again. Sometimes I could hear her knocking on the wood, but mostly she was quiet. She continued this pattern, working steadily, sometimes leaning around further so that her tail came off the trunk, as if her head were further inside a growing hole.

Once when she paused, the sun lit her face, showing big bright amber-brown eyes and a smudge of soft red over the long dark bill. Below her tail were scattered dark spots, some in the shape of hearts.

When the male Red-bellied Woodpecker arrived, he worked quietly and steadily, as she had, after only that approaching, relatively low call. Once he stopped briefly to scratch his lower belly with his bill, and I could see the dull reddish-fawn feathering.

*The species account in Birds of North America Online says the pair bond lasts about seven months, through the nesting season, and it is “rare to find mated pairs from September through January.” It mentions that both sexes excavate cavities for roosting, and both sexes change roost sites frequently, but says “adults roost singly in cavities at night,” and does not describe pairs working together on roost holes. Clifford E. Shackelford, Raymond E. Brown and Richard N. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carollinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

November Twilight – Partial Song of a Hermit Thrush

Friday, November 6th, 2009

Just after sundown last night, the sky was clear, violet-gray, orange on the horizon, and the last warm, hoarded light made maples, oaks, sweet gums and tulip poplars glow as if lit from within, briefly, before they faded. Gone are the long, lingering twilights of summer. There were few birds to see, but many to hear as they settled in for the night – peeps of Cardinals, whistle of Mourning Dove wings, gentle moans of Bluebirds, mews of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows, tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows, little chits and ticks of Chickadees and Titmice, tsup of Phoebe, the muted rough call of a Mockingbird. A small flock of Robins flew over.

From the edge of a rough patch of woods came the airy, ornate notes of part of a Hermit Thrush’s song, like a summer leaf drifting down, falling only once. I stopped to listen, but heard no more. Hermit Thrushes come to spend the winter here, but I seldom hear them sing here, so this was an unexpected, rare, fleeting pleasure.

Then White-throated Sparrows began to sing from all around, hesitant, often partial songs, sometimes a bit off-key, but others true and sweet, whistling O Sweet Canada or Old Sam Peabody or Come A-way With Me.

Several tall, thick Leyland cypress trees, dark against the pale orange sky, were lively with the peeps and chips and tseets of birds and with little birds chasing each other and diving into the depths of the trees and disappearing for the night.

The moon, just past full, had not yet risen, but later the night remained clear and the moon shone bright, flooding the trees and grass in pure, white, brilliant light.

Winter Birds

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

The arrival of beautiful new twin grand-daughters, Luna and Stella, has kept me busy and rather distracted from birding as much as usual for the past few weeks, but now and then I’ve gotten out to enjoy some picture-perfect autumn days and to welcome back some of our returning winter birds. In addition to Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers – White-throated Sparrows, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers all have returned sometime during October. I haven’t yet heard the chup of a Hermit Thrush, but am hoping and listening, and also am watching and listening for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, hoping this might be another good year for them here.

The nights of October 18 and 19 brought our first light frost. Then toward the end of the month more long days of heavy rain returned, and October came to an end today with another all-day, drenching rain. The dark gray clouds, mist, fog and rain blurred the oranges, reds, saffron, wine, copper and faded green of the foliage, which is just now reaching its peak. Though it will be a late and somewhat subdued year for color, it’s at its best now, and the weather and mood are mellow, sleepy and make me want to curl up in a chair by the fire and read, and watch the rain fall through a blurry, softly colored window.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Late in the morning on a clear, sunny, colorful fall day, October 20, I heard the stuttering chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet for the first time this season, coming from some low thickets along the roadside as I walked, a familiar dry, percussive little voice that is so natural a part of the fall and winter landscape here. Two or three days later I got my first look at one, moving around quickly in the low branches of a young water oak – a small, very active gray bird with darker wings, white wing-bar and white ring around the eye that give it an alert and watchful look. It’s always on the move, often flitting its wings. The small, bright ruby crest was not raised and visible – often the case at this time of year.